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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

18 min read.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.

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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People
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“The Luo community is happy Raila is back at the centre,” intoned our physician friend, Dr Sam Owino. In the last twelve months, since the surprise political rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his antagonist-in-chief Raila Odinga, the talk about town has been how the Luos are now reaping from the so-called “Handshake”. “We’re no longer the political bogeyman of the state,” reiterated the Nairobi physician. “It has never been fun carrying the tag and burden of oppositional politics in the country for all these years.”

After the Handshake, which had been preceded by a piercing palpable tension across the country, Raila, the leader of the nascent opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA), broke ranks with his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula to sue for peace with President Uhuru of the Jubilee Party. “Koro wan eisirkal,” (We’re now in government…we’re no longer in the opposition) said Raila soon after the Handshake, a statement that was reiterated by President Uhuru. A visitor to the country soon after the combustible double elections would never appreciate and digest fully the import of that statement.

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969…”

To a section of the Luo community, “being in the political cold,” is a phrase they identify with all too well. “The Luo people have been in the opposition effectively since 1966, when President Jomo Kenyatta shunted his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” said Bernard Oduor, an advertising and marketing manager of a Nairobi-based publishing company. “Let another community shoulder the weight of being always on the receiving end of the state’s anti-development brutal policies and constant violence.”

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969. Six months later, Tom Mboya, perhaps the greatest of Luo leaders, was killed, possibly by the same forces that took care of Kodhek through a freak accident.”

That same year, 1969, the government detained Jaramogi with other Luo leaders for standing up to Jomo and the Kiambu Mafia’s imperial tendencies, recalls Oduor. “It was a cruel testament of the political harassment by the successive government of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi that by the time multipartyism was being re-introduced in Kenya, in 1991, Jaramogi was already frail, old and sickly.” A multiparty election was held in December 1992 and Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo. A year later, on January 20, 1994, Jaramogi was dead.

From 1963 to 1978, Kenya had been a de facto one party state. But in 1982, just before the attempted military putsch led by Kenya Air Force officers on August 1, 1982, the country become a de jure one party state, after Jaramogi and George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusiiland, walked to the registrar’s office at Sheria House and demanded to register their party – the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). Feeling threatened by the duo’s courage and determination to register a new party, one afternoon Moi summoned MPs and asked them to change the constitution to make Kenya a one-party dictatorship.

“Even though Robert Ouko, the brilliant foreign affairs minister, worked for the Kanu government and was a loyal lieutenant of Moi, they still got rid of him, proving that no Luo politician was good enough for a Kenyan government,” opined Oduor. “It has been a tortuous long journey and it’s time we enjoyed some respite.”

Broken promises    

In the aftermath of a contested August 8, 2017 election and the subsequent boycott of the second presidential election on October 26, 2017, the state visited violence on members of the Luo community in Nairobi County, and especially in the lakeside town of Kisumu, which is perceived as a base for the Luo community. In both cities, hordes of youth from the ghetto suburbs of Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi and Nyalenda and Kondele in Kisumu rioted, protesting the gross mismanagement of the election procedure. Many of the youth who were felled by the bullets of state security personnel were Luo youth.

“The Handshake was meant to cool the political temperatures, which were threatening to soar overboard,” said Steve Ochuodho, a researcher in African history. “It was to allow for the country to go back to its normal self and stabilise, with the aim of the country hopefully taking off economically. True, the country stabilised, but nothing much has really happened thereafter.”

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people…”

“Contrary to popular belief being peddled by ‘Raila evangelists’ that the Luos are now in government, nothing could be further from the truth,” noted Ochuodho. “Luos aren’t in the government and more than ever before, they are languishing in poverty. I fret every time I hear that Luos are now enjoying and I ask: Which Luos are these? If there are any Luos in government, they must be Raila’s friends or his relatives from Siaya County,” added the researcher.

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people. Because of these Raila Handshakes, the Luo people are treated as the Odinga family’s captives to be traded with politically any time the family wants to reap financially from the existing government.”

“There are no deliverables, neither are there fruits to be harvested from the Handshake,” said Ochuodho. “All what we are hearing is what it intends to do, It is classic political brinkmanship.” All what the Handshake has done is to entrench even further retrogressive leadership in Luo Nyanza.”

“Through the Handshake, Cyprian Awiti, the Homa Bay governor, came back. Every Luo voter, wherever he or she was, knew Awiti was never going to survive a by-election if the court upheld the petition.” Former Kasipul MP Oyugi Magwanga had successively petitioned both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, only for the Supreme Court to uphold his election victory in August 8, 2017.

With the coming by-election in Ugenya, Raila has already told the voters ahead of time that they should not let him down – that they should return Christopher Karan, who the court found had engaged in electoral malpractices, pointed out Ochuodho. “Kik ukuod wiya jothurwa, (Please don’t embarrass me), Raila told the voters when he went there recently. Even though Karan is unpopular, the ODM party still gave him a direct ticket.” David Ouma Ochieng, Karan’s chief opponent and the immediate former MP, whose petition was heard by the High Court in Kisumu, will be mounting a soap box when the by-election comes up on April 5, 2019.

“The Luo people were not ready for the Handshake,” said Mike Osilo, an information technologist in Nairobi. “Because they were ready for war. The state’s unceasing violence against the Luo people had created in them an appetite for unstoppable bloodshed. They were prepared to go the whole hog.”

Osilo said this hardline stance had been fomented during the October 26 fresh presidential elections when elections did not take place in four Nyanza counties (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya). “For the first in the history of post-independent Kenya, a people had successively held back a state with all its militarised violence. From then on, the people decided there was no turning back and then the Handshake happened.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories…”

Osilo said Raila’s Handshake compensation promise to the families that lost their relatives in the last election, especially in Kisumu, has remained just that: a promise. “Immediately after the Handshake, Raila went down to Kondele, the site of the greatest state violence visited on a people. Scores of youth were killed by the GSU and Raila that night told their families that the government was going to compensate them. The people were in a very uncompromising mood, but Raila managed to calm them down. Twelve months later, there is nothing to show for that promise.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories, for instance. When I hear people talking of deliverables through the Handshake, I wonder where these deliverables are to be found.”

“Let it be on record: The much talked about dredging vessel brought to Lake Victoria actually preceded the Handshake – Raila just hijacked its launching on January 19, 2019. Likewise, the ongoing resuscitation of the Kenya Breweries Limited plant in Kisumu is not a product of the Handshake: KBL had already given the farmers the go-ahead [before the Handshake took place] to start sowing sorghum. As for the ferry transport on Lake Victoria, the World Bank had already mapped the lake for its Lake Victoria Transport programme as far back as 2016,” noted Osilo.

“One year down the line, the Handshake had become a forum for exchanging insults,” said Ochuodho. “Those who used Ruto to thrust a poisoned dagger into Raila’s back are the same people who are now are using him to stab Ruto in the back.” In Ochuodho’s view, “Canaan had become a mirage”, whose climax was deporting Joshua Miguna Miguna, a deportation Ochuodho squarely blames Raila for. “I can tell you this, the Handshake will not last – it will soon collapse, and after it collapses, Raila will walk away in shame, this time accompanied by old age.” The referendum which is supposed to be the outcome of BBI is “already poisoned,” summed up Ochuodho.

No bridges built in Kisumu

In the lakeshore Kisumu city, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s first anniversary went unnoticed. The residents we interviewed were resolute that the Handshake was still a puzzle and shrouded in mystery. Hence, the rapprochement means different things to different people. One year after it took place, it still dominates public discussions, eliciting more questions than answers.

“Did the Handshake simply substitute Luo-Kalenjin elite rivalry with the Luo-Gikuyu elite one? Are the Gikuyu elite now holding the ring between Raila Odinga and William Ruto? Who really is our enemy?” posed a middle-aged man at the Bunge la Wananchi (Peoples’ Parliament) meeting taking place under the huge canopy of an oak-like tree off the Kisumu-Kampala Road where real politik is earnestly and hotly debated during the lunch break.

For some of Kisumu’s residents, what the Handshake has succeeded in doing is resuscitate puzzling questions that revolve around Raila’s political deftness and survival instincts. “Raila’s an avid football fan and right now he has the ball…will he, this time just get away with a high ball against William Ruto? If he does, will Ruto, stand between him and the goal? Or, will he this time finally score the winning goal, now that the referees of the presidential tourney seems to be on his side?” mused Willis Ochieng. “Ruto is not a leader, he’s a dealer. There’s no doubt he would be bad for the country – he’s unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. But that aside, the big question that has been disturbing us is, just what is in it for the rest of the spectator crowd?

At the Kondele highway interchange, we met Shem Matiku, a cobbler who plies his trade below the interchange. Kondele was the site of fierce battles between the battle-hardened youth of the sprawling ghetto, who fought back the paramilitary police, the General Service Unit (GSU) in August 2017 after the first presidential election. Matiku had since put that terrible period behind him: “I’m an optimist. I believe Raila has the best interests of his people. Uhuru, unlike Ruto is not a hardliner, he could be a hard bargainer, but a bargainer nonetheless and that is why he made a pact with Raila.”

“Ruto’s too forceful,” reflected Matiku, in between shining his customers’ shoes. “It is as if he’s forcing the people to elect him: it’s either his way or the highway.” The cobbler observed that until Raila went into government, development in Luo Nyanza was lopsided. “Now we’re beginning to see some development our way: Kenya Breweries has reopened its factory and construction of roads has commenced and corruption is being fought…you know what…Raila helped Uhuru see state corruption in the government. Let the spirit of the Handshake flow. We support it one hundred percent.”

However, George Collins Owour, an astute civil society leader, is utterly unimpressed by the Handshake. “We wanted to put up a monument in honour of the victims of political violence, preferably at the Jomo Kenyatta sports ground and have Raila Odinga launch it,” said Owuor. “A monument that would tell the story of the victims of political violence, and a constant reminder to the youth of the dangers of political violence, while at the same time establishing a link between poverty and politics. The monument had been also intended to occupy a space for discussing political violence and how it distracts and destroys lives of many unhinged youth. It would remind them of the dangers of disorganised and unhelpful protests and thereby discourage them from participating in them.”

“The youth are always ready to participate in protests, but where are they now? Some were killed and maimed, others were arrested and falsely accused of robbery with violence and are now languishing in jail, having been forgotten,” lamented Owuor. “The irony is that the county government of Kisumu, while rejecting our proposal, was quick to fast track its own plans of erecting a statue in memory of Jaramogi Odinga.”

“Jaramogi initiated the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, which inspired small- and medium-scale business initiatives in Nyanza region. As a social democrat, Jaramogi also led popular grassroots movements for political and cultural awareness in the whole of East Africa,” said Prof Anyang Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu.

While the contribution of Jaramogi among the Luo community is in no doubt and cannot be contested, whether in Luo Nyanza or, indeed the entire country, to seemingly bury the history of the youth, who have paid with their lives for fighting for democracy, is callous and deceitful, bemoaned Owuor. “Let us not kid ourselves – the Handshake has not worked for the youth: the boda bodas (motor cycle riders), street vendors and hawkers are still suffering – some lost their lives, others are today living with live bullets in their bodies. Nobody talks about their plight and President Uhuru and Raila have largely forgotten about them.”

Owuor said it would be pretentious to build bridges when the youth have been neglected. “The youth had been promised Canaan. Instead what they got was a Handshake between two political bigwigs who cared for nothing as far as the youth were concerned. Because of this, Raila cannot hold a rally in Kisumu – the youth are still very embittered.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

The civil society leader said BBI was a reward for the boys. “I’ve been seeing them in seminars taking selfies, and we’ve yet to see a preliminary report of its findings. If BBI was working, we wouldn’t have heard the kind of political rhetoric and bitterness we witnessed at the Kirinyaga governors’ conference. Truth be told, BBI has been overtaken by events…stupid…succession politics is the order of the day.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

Hard feelings, brought about by past betrayals by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, the construction of a few road projects, the appointment of a few sons-of-the-soil into public offices, and some subsidy for the beleaguered sugarcane farmers to numb the Luo people’s raw wounds, as they cheat them again, are still very real.

The mixed reactions also revealed a wide gap between the politics that the Handshake enabled at the county level – where incompetent, corrupt, and nepotistic leadership is the name of the game, and where Raila’s hard core support base yearns for a clean and competent government that can deliver healthcare, food, and clean water – and national-level politics, where the very same Raila has been baying for the blood of some of the corrupt, inept and ethnic chauvinists in charge of various ministries.

Drunk with power by proxy

At the county level, the Handshake, it seems, is politics as usual. It starkly reminds Kenyans, especially residents of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori counties, that their political fortunes or misfortunes since independence have risen or fallen hard with every elite pact, and the ever changing political coalitions, mostly beholden to expedient political interests.

“This time, it’s a call for a big sacrifice from Raila’s political ambitions, an exchange for the quest for justice for the electoral malpractices and victims of police violence, for some ‘development’,” and ultimately, Raila’s quest for the presidency or premiership,” posited Martin Augo.

If Raila’s core support base yearns for competent and accountable county governments is unmistakable, then the Handshake seemed to make such demands only at the national government level, points out Willis Ochieng, a tenderprenuer who has worked in several county governments in western Kenya. “The Handshake,” said Ochieng, “ilituliza joto la siasa, lakini wananchi bado hawana huduma. Ma MCAs, wamesahau hata watu wao kabisa. Wanapigana bunge kujaza mifuko yao tu.” (The Handshake cooled the political temperatures, but the people still lack services. These MCAs have completely ignored the people who elected them. They fight in their respective assemblies to fill their pockets).

In several social media platforms, Kenyans envy the counties that have made remarkable progress and built infrastructure that makes county residents proud, such as the stadium in Kakamega County, the hospital in Makueni County, and the level-six hospital in Kisii County. But hardly anyone envies a hyacinth-free Siaya or Homa Bay or a world class football stadium in Migori. Raila’s strongholds, it seems, have nothing to show for the six years of the devolved government experiment.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base…

One hears only an occasional gnashing of clerical teeth, a dissatisfied Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop James Ochiel of Southern Nyanza diocese, but hardly a gnashing of the second liberators’ teeth, the custodians of the spirit of the struggle against bad government, among them the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s honchos.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base – men who, except for Prof Nyong’o, are seen as corrupt, nepotistic, incapable and fantastically generous with cash hand-outs, often given to a few hangers-on as they ride out a lacklustre two-term tenure at the helm of the Homa Bay, Siaya, and Migori county governments.

The ODM mandarins and Raila evangelists would rather they shadow and listen to the double meaning of Aisha Jumwa’s supposed disloyalty and sexed-up taunts of kiuno kiuno (hip gyrations) or “Kanugo e teko,” in Kisumu-speak. Aisha Jumwa’s flaunting of her sex appeal, which seems to gain the ire of the mostly male ODM party honchos, might look comical, but it is a timely reminder than the ODM party leaders may have to work extra hard to keep women’s support. Many women who support the party are hurting and hard done by tough economic times.

No justice for victims of political violence

In Kisumu’s Obunga slum, we sat down with two women outside the aptly named New Obunga Pub, who out of fear of reprisal from ODM Kisumu party hacks requested anonymity. “Risasi oweyo goyo udi wa. tear gas orumo,” (The bullets have stopped hitting our houses and the tear gas is no more), said the lady with a spec of gray hair. “The only respite we have now is that people are no longer running helter-skelter…we, at least, can move freely,” intoned her younger friend. “But there is nothing much else: there is no business, no income, we can’t buy anything because we don’t have the money. You just hustle as hard and kama kawaida (as usual nothing has changed). There is no work for the youth.”

Many, especially women, are still hurting and carrying the scars of the political violence of the 2017 presidential elections. They are also deeply impacted by the tough economic times. “Women were raped. Some lost family members, and although some of the victims formed a support group and were given food at the Kenyatta sports ground, they didn’t get any other help,” said one of the women, a human rights defender, who was hunched over an old model laptop plastered with stickers.

Justice for the victims of political violence has remained a sticky sour question. Unlike their counterparts from Central Kenya, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) or returnees who came back to Kisumu and neighbouring counties are still waiting for the token financial compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.

The majority of the victims of the recent political violence feel let down by their elected leaders. At best, the elected leaders have been opportunistic and at worst indifferent to the plight of the victims. Shena Ryan, who works with a youth group that runs a charity for the poor living with HIV on the outskirts of Kisumu city, said, “It’s not enough to pay for the funeral expenses and give hand-outs to the bereaved for cheap publicity. A politician’s still a politician, always looking out for cheap glorification.”

Ryan reckons that the Handshake had restored stability, no doubt, because “Kikuyus could now again trade freely in Kibuye. We went to the streets, to protest electoral injustices, and some of us were killed. No one has got justice. They are telling us the OCS Nyalenda will be charged. Until these policemen are charged, it will remain just a narrative.”

Said the social worker, “I wasn’t for the Handshake and now, with the knowledge of hindsight, it would have been better had we not poured into the streets. Until the two buffaloes who shook hands come back to the people, purposefully apologise to the victims of the police violence, that Handshake means nothing. Recently, when the duo visited [to attend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s memorial in Bondo], we were told, ‘Do not heckle Jakom. Who’s Jakom?’” The Handshake has returned us into a one-part state; we are all now in the Jubilee Party.”

In place of the elected leaders, a consortium of civic organisations comprising the Kisumu City Residents Voice, the Kondele Justice Centre, the National Informal Sector Alliance and Kisumu Joint Bunge Initiative, among others, have stepped in to pursue justice for at least 67 people who incurred various bodily injuries, both in the run-up to and after the 2017 presidential elections.

The consortium has petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of Kenya, asking Justice David Maraga to establish a tribunal to look into how security officers singled out and policed Luo Nyanza region during the last general election, to pursue justice for the victims of police violence, and to recommend the prosecution of the police officers who may be found to have been culpable of violence.

Mixed fortunes

Kisumu residents feel that their elected leaders are also indifferent to their economic plight. “Tich tire” (I’m hard at work) says Governor Prof Anyang’, who valorises the Protestant work ethic. But his constituents, such as Willis Ojwang’, retort, “Tich tire; to kech kecho,” (You are hard at work, but hunger bites sting).

Kisumu is no longer stuck in a socialist-like rut of drab municipal and civil service housing, uniformly dull in a state of disrepair, and the old ubiquitous rickety and dusty Peugeot 404 plying the Kondele-Kondele route that were kept on the narrow and badly maintained roads by the combined genius of the city’s mechanics and take-no-prisoners drivers.

The regional marine transport into the port of Kisumu is as good as dead. And the railway tracks are buried deep in the soil. Yet, the urban poor now cruise through the city’s new road networks and underpasses, four or five passengers in a tuk tuk, (rickshaw-type three-wheeler taxis) or as one or two passengers on a boda boda. Its streets, especially in the CBD, all the way to Kisumu International Airport, are well lit at night.

But the city has not yet turned a corner. Its economy is not yet as dynamic as its demography, especially as it draws in other East Africans, such as the Burundians and more Ugandans, who are hawking consumer goods in search of surplus incomes. More than the Protestant work ethic, Kisumu’s economy is in dire need of structural change, the revival of agricultural sectors and ventures into agribusiness, if only to mitigate the widening gender inequality gap and meet the demands of regional integration.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

Although the revival of the KBL Kisumu plant held hope for some, the two women we talked to in Obunga complained that the plant employs people from Nairobi, Uganda, Nyakach, and Machakos, not the residents of Obunga as they had hoped. Worse still, for women who have been left out of the city’s better-paying male dominated boda boda and the car wash businesses, the fish processing companies, which used to employ many women directly and indirectly through trading in mgongo wazi (fish skeletons) is closed. “It was big business for all. But with the coming of the Chinese fish, the companies closed. These companies now use their big freezers and cold rooms to store and redistribute Chinese fish,” said one of the women.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

“Prostitution is rife here,” one of the women told us. “If you guys stayed a little longer, you’d see a traffic of women moving up towards Kondele, Gwara-Gwara or Ka-Lorry where sex goes for as little Sh20 per shot. What has the Handshake done for us? It has pushed us into sex slavery,” moaned the woman dejectedly as the sun was setting on Obunga slum.

Youth too have missed the BBI boat. If university students’ campus politics is a good indicator for the shifting political alliance, then Kathy Gitau, the articulate, urbane, and charming vice chairperson of the Maseno University students’ council knows all too well how significant local politics, including campus politics, are intricately tied to the centre.

Clutching a long list of names of students who deserve bursaries this semester, which are due for submission, she agreed that the Handshake, “had cooled down political temperatures …brought political stability, freedom of movement, and good working relationship across ethnic divides, and on campus, bridged the ethnic rift between students”, making it possible for her and team to invoke the spirit of the Handshake to canvass for votes. As a coalition of three women and four men, and as a coalition of a Luo (chairperson), a Kikuyu (vice chairperson), a Luhya (treasurer), a Kisii and Turkana, they had been elected.”

Stated Gitau: “Before the Handshake, it was hard for a Kikuyu or Kalenjin to get elected by the students. Ethnic discrimination against the Kikuyu and Kalenjin was rife among students. ‘Why should we give you a piece of cake here when you have the national cake?’ argued the students. Our competence, individuality, strong gender and ethnic balance swept us into office. All candidates in our coalition, except one, were elected. We won by a landslide,” said Gitau.

Still, Ms Gitau had some reservations. The Handshake, she said, “has bridged the divisions among the ordinary citizens who can now interact freely, but it has also widened the rift among the political class. It has killed the opposition. Raila now has a central role in government because he seems to have edged out Ruto. This could, as well, affect us, pitting us in an endless cycle of disputes and divisions.”

She, however, admitted that she still doesn’t understand what the Handshake is all about. “Is it supposed to end in a referendum? If so, how will we participate in a process whose outcome or end game is unknown or seems predetermined? What is in it for the youth? Be that as it may, the Handshake seems to have shifted the focus away from the Big Four Agenda issues of food, healthcare, housing and industrialisation.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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